Come join us for a talk by Dr. Nicholas Witkowski from Tokyo University.
Talk title: “Is Indian Buddhism a Religion of the ‘Middle Way’? An Examination of Evidence for the Ascetic Practice of Begging for One’s Food Among Early Indian Buddhist Monks”
Abstract: Students of Asian cultural history generally take for granted the conception— long ago articulated by scholars of Buddhist Studies—that Buddhism is not a religion known for ascetic practice. Justification requires little more than trotting out the wellworn claim that Buddhism is a religion of the “middle way” and therefore, the extremes of indulgence and asceticism are to be rejected. Typically, scholars spend little energy attempting to justify this claim and simply assert that it is true. When scholars do admit that asceticism played a role in the life of the Buddhist monastery, they tend to relegate these practices to a purported moment prior to institutionalization of the saṃgha. In this paper, I will argue that ascetic practices were common in the institutionalized Indian Buddhist monastery of the so-called “middle period” (0-500CE). I will focus on evidence for the ascetic practice of begging for food from house to house on a daily basis (Chin. 乞食 Skt. piṇḍapāta). What I hope to demonstrate is that begging for one’s daily sustenance was commonplace among monks appearing in the case narratives of the Indian Buddhist legal codes, or Vinayas. This anthropology of the begging practice will be based on three categories of evidence from Vinaya narratives: 1) monks who engage in sexual improprieties with patrons during their begging rounds, 2) monks who are denied food while on their rounds because they lack a reputation for spiritual capacity, and 3) monks who are denied food because regional famine limits the potential generosity of patrons.